Rachel Yankey interview: The feeling to the flex for Gunners’ England great
Little introduction is required when it comes to England and Arsenal Ladies’ Rachel Yankey, but although much of her journey to becoming a premier name in women’s football has often been documented, there are further depths to be uncovered through music discussion.
Progress is a term brought up frequently with regard to the women’s game and when you talk about the players who have gone above and beyond to create a better present and future for the sport it is impossible to overlook Rachel. The 129-cap international forward has swept the board with domestic silverware, played at the most prestigious tournaments, and been awarded an OBE for her work in the game and with youngsters.
The Gunners’ number 11 also had the distinction of being the very first professional women’s footballer in England when she was the first signing made by Fulham after they turned pro in 2000. Much of her story has been explored before, including how she went from a school leaver without a plan to a recognised and respected sportswoman with her own business.
The preparation and discipline are fundamental cornerstones to any successful player and it is during part of the time spent keeping in the necessary condition that Rachel turns to music to help her sustain focus. What is different about how the ex-Birmingham City winger locks into her zone is the mood and tempo she opts for, as she explains.
“In the gym, I don’t mind my own music, even though it’s the opposite to the stuff most people listen to where it gets your heart racing. I tend to like songs with meaningful words and I’m more into slow jams.
“Anything that’s a bit of a racket I don’t really go for – that’s how I know I’m getting old!”
Along with the likes of goalkeeper Emma Byrne, defender Alex Scott, and attacking standouts Kelly Smith and Lianne Sanderson, Rachel is well-versed in the club’s tradition of success. It is her second spell with the Gunners, and having returned in 2005, she has been a constant amid the transitional nature of the organisation in recent times.
Each of those players mentioned were contributors to the team’s incredible 2006/07 season, in which they notched the quadruple – the FA Women’s Premier League, the FA Women’s Cup, the FA Women’s Premier League Cup and the UEFA Women’s Cup. The latter of those was surely the most impressive achievement and it was Alex Scott who scored the only goal of the two-legged final to beat Swedish team Umeå.
The former Boston Breakers full-back featured on here last February and for club and country she has long been known as the pre-game DJ. Rachel explains how she enlists the help of the England right-sider when her song library needs fresh additions.
“I’ve never been the DJ; I just let Alex do that! I don’t mind because she likes a lot of the same music as I do and she was the one who updated my phone with it the last time some new stuff went on there.”
In dressing rooms throughout football, there are various personalities to be found and the right mix can drag a team through the most testing of times. It is also true that some of those characters will turn to music to fire them up and will carry that connection to songs with them closely in their personal life.
It is not only the aficionados who can be touched by music however, and while Rachel might not dominate the team playlist and carry the speakers, vocal talent and the presence of a true performer resonate with her all the same.
“I mostly like r&b: Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Usher. I think Ed Sheeran’s quite cool as well.
“Growing up, it was the same sort of stuff but people like Mary J. Blige, and I love Michael Jackson too. I’m always in my car going to and from training or going to schools so I’ll whack a radio station like KISS on.
“I’ve been to a few concerts, like Alicia Keys, and also someone got me tickets for Drake. I didn’t really know much about him at the time but once I was there I knew quite a few of the songs already and I thought he was brilliant.
“I also saw Robbie Williams when I was younger and his concert was really entertaining.”
Last January, Rachel signed a new two-year contract with Arsenal and played 24 times last season, finding the net in the 4-0 win at Manchester City in August. Although one of the senior figures in the squad, she is in excellent shape and brings first-class intensity and professionalism, but mentioning the earliest addition to her music collection had her feeling rather more seasoned than she’d wish!
“The first music I bought was definitely a tape because I don’t think CDs were out back then! Billy Ocean springs to mind, so I suppose that’s a bit sad really!”
The 2005 FA Women’s International Player of the Year, Rachel was involved in the 2001, 2005 and 2013 European Championships, as well as the 2007 and 2011 World Cup tournaments. Her number 11 shirt also graced the London Olympics in 2012, but this time it was in the colours of Team GB as she played all five of their matches that summer, including the 1-0 win over Brazil before a crowd of 70,584 at Wembley.
In July 2010, she became only the second female player to win 100 caps for England, joining former captain Gillian Coultard in achieving centurion status as the Lionesses beat Turkey 3-0 in a World Cup qualifier in Walsall. Rachel had been only 17 when she made her first appearance for her country, playing and scoring in a 4-0 friendly win over Scotland in August 1997, but having to do so in an extra large men’s England kit.
At club level, the North Londoner’s trophy haul is incredible and it includes 11 FA Women’s Cup titles, nine of which have been won with Arsenal. The other two came during her spell as a full-time professional at Fulham, where she also won one of her seven FA Women’s Premier League medals.
The playing field has evened hugely in English women’s football in recent years and the colossal superiority once enjoyed by Arsenal has been replaced by a much more competitive scenario. While Liverpool have scooped the FA Women’s Super League in the past two seasons, the Gunners have still managed to keep up the winning habit in the domestic cup competitions.
An FA WSL champion in 2011 and 2012, Rachel recalls the quirkier side to some of her distinguished former teammates who shared in her club triumphs in times gone by.
“A few of the girls from the other year at Arsenal – Steph Houghton, Ellen White, Jenny Beattie – they didn’t last long with the music! Ciara Grant and Jayne Ludlow also spring to mind for their music taste.
“Ciara loves a Christmas song and Jayne loves Dolly Parton…so, fair enough! Ellen (White) was a bit of a teenybopper with One Direction and that sort of stuff!”
In March 2013, England were Cyprus Cup winners as they defeated this year’s World Cup hosts Canada thanks to Rachel’s terrific strike. Three months later came a very proud moment as she moved onto 126 caps and surpassed Peter Shilton to lead her country for international appearances.
That cap was won in a draw with world champions Japan at Burton’s Pirelli Stadium and Rachel was greeted with her teammates singing to her as she got back on the bus after the friendly. She had set up Eni Aluko’s goal that day and besides the Chelsea forward’s technical ability she also knows all about her vocal range by now!
She mentioned Aluko alongside a couple of her fellow Lionesses and also remembered a regular pastime from one of her former clubs.
“At Fulham, we used to go to karaoke. I’m not sure which of the girls used to sing but it definitely wouldn’t be me up there!
“With England, I can remember Jill Scott singing a few times and she’s not afraid to do that. Lianne (Sanderson) and Eni (Aluko) aren’t shy either…but I think they need to hear themselves!”
A teenage goalscorer in the 1998 FA Women’s Cup final as Arsenal beat Croydon, Rachel also hit the target to help Fulham beat Doncaster Rovers Belles four years later. In 2006, she was a standout in Arsenal’s 5-0 thrashing of Leeds, scoring a left-footed free-kick and winning a penalty for Kelly Smith to dispatch.
One of her opponents that day at The Den was Sue Smith, capped 93 times by England and an even more familiar face by now thanks to her TV punditry. The Doncaster winger demonstrated that everlasting eye for goal last season and she also happens to be the former teammate Rachel thought of when asked who she would choose to record a song with, if ever such a situation should arise.
“When we were younger, me and Sue Smith would always have fun, so I think she’d be my partner in crime for that.”
A scorer as England beat champions-elect Japan 2-0 in the 2011 World Cup group stage, Rachel’s most recent game for the national side was in the 1-1 draw with Russia at Euro 2013. Currently, only Liverpool midfielder Fara Williams has more caps (with 133), and manager Mark Sampson stated that the door was still open for Rachel.
At club level, there is much to anticipate as Arsenal, now coached by Pedro Martínez Losa, bid to win the FA WSL for the first time since 2012. The Gunners’ league season begins at Notts County on April 2nd, and with training now resumed, Rachel describes a little of her schedule in recent months.
“We stopped back in October/November time so I’ve been able to go on holiday. I still work in primary schools and I’ve been doing various things around football at schools.
“I’ve just been taking a break from playing really.”
Before Arsenal get their fifth FA WSL season underway they will play in the fifth round of the FA Women’s Cup on March 22nd. Manager Losa has so far added four new players, with Bristol Academy captain Jemma Rose, her former teammate at the Vixens, Natalia, ex-Western New York Flash midfielder Vicky Losada, and England forward Lianne Sanderson all joining.
Sanderson returns to the club for a second spell after departing in 2008 and she is reunited at club level with Rachel. Last July, she featured on here in an in-depth interview and mentioned how Rachel used to give her Arsenal shirt to her when she was a youngster, before becoming a teammate and friend.
Mentorship is something Rachel offers in abundance, but who did she have to help her on her way when she was starting out in the game?
“It was kind of different when I was younger because as I was coming into football I didn’t really know of any female players. Once I was in there and playing though, Sian Williams, the Arsenal captain, was a big influence, and also Jo Broadhurst.
“She (Broadhurst) was like a big kid and an older sister who all the players could relate to and she looked after the younger ones.”
Prior to the FA WSL, numerous England internationals such as Karen Carney, Anita Asante and Eniola Aluko went to the U.S. to represent teams in Women’s Professional Soccer. Although Rachel was not one of them, she had ventured to the States in 2005, where she was a W-League winner with New Jersey Wildcats.
Five years earlier, she had played for the Canadian side Laval Dynamites, and she shares her thoughts on what she believes she took from those experiences, also discussing the prospect of one day heading back over the Atlantic.
“I enjoyed the two times I was over there, once in Montreal in Canada and once in New Jersey. That kind of experience helps you grow up and get used to a different way of life.
“On the playing side, the focus isn’t just on the goalscorer, it’s also on who created it. We can easily forget about who did the work and assisted a goal but when you’re in America and you hear that over the Tannoy you appreciate it.
“That’s one of the things I liked, and also the way they train. It’s as standard but I think they do it very well over there.
“I’d never say no to going back over there and coaching one day. It’s not something I’m actively looking to do but I would give it some consideration if the opportunity ever came up.”
As Rachel was approaching the end of her school days, she felt without a clear idea of what she was going to do, but she has since gained a wealth of experience to share. Initially awarded an MBE in the 2006 New Year’s Honours list, this became an OBE a year ago as she was recognised for her work in the game and specifically at youth level.
She continues to run the Rachel Yankey Football Programme, mentoring youngsters, and as she alluded to, working in primary schools across Brent and Harrow. Also running a team in the Harrow Youth League, Rachel is undoubtedly a player and person for English football and sport as a whole to hold in the highest regard.
Bonded with the game for as long as she can recall, what does she feel she has learned the most from her story so far?
“Obviously in life as well as in football you get a lot of ups and downs. Don’t have any regrets and do what you believe is right.
“Sometimes it will go the right way and everyone will love it, other times it won’t, but just make sure you believe in yourself. All the time in life you’re set new challenges so just make sure what you do is for the right reasons.”
In 2000, Fulham became the first team in the women’s game to turn professional, making Rachel the first of their signings. Despite the high hopes of the club at the time and their affiliation with the men’s team they returned to operating as semi-pro just three years later before folding in 2006. A re-established club (independent from the men’s side) was then started before being dissolved in 2010.
Rachel has seen the good and bad sides to the game through her career, but with what now feels like the most promising time we have ever had for women’s football, I asked what she would personally like to see done to further the progression. While taking into account the downsides, she referred back to her time in West London.
“For me personally, I played at Fulham for three seasons fully professional and I think the only way is to go back to that. It made me better and if I could have every team playing and training like that, that’s what I’d want.”
Playing for Mill Hill United as a kid, where she would compete with Kelly Smith’s team Pinner Park, Rachel had previously had to play on a boys’ team, even disguising herself just to have the chance to play. Besides manager Russell Mountford at Mill Hill, highly successful former Arsenal Ladies boss (and current kit man for the men’s team) Vic Akers was someone who gave her a chance in the game.
We all need someone to invest that faith and give us an opportunity and now Rachel is the one who’s helping youngsters toward a more promising future.
“I really enjoy working with the kids and trying to give them belief. It’s not really about them competing but trying to teach them about being the best you can be.”
With hopefully much more to come from Yanks out on the pitch, it is time for one of the biggest challenges she has ever faced – the 5-a-side question! Each player interviewed on the site is asked to imagine themselves in a team and to select four of their career teammates to make up the other positions.
It is of course difficult for many players to narrow down the teammates they have had to just a select few, and in order to accommodate the number she chose, Rachel may have to bench herself and direct this line-up from the sidelines to begin with!
“If I had two keepers I’d go for Emma Byrne and Pauline Cope – they’d have to battle it out. Emma’s a joker but when it comes to football it’s got to be done right and to a high standard.
“She’ll tell you if you’re not doing it and that’s what I love about her – don’t get on the wrong side of her! Mary Phillip was a brilliant defender and people just didn’t get past her.
“She’s just had another child so she’s a busy mum. I’ll go for Anita Asante in midfield, hands down, I didn’t even have to think about that.
“She’s a brilliant person, so humble and laid-back, but also an intelligent teammate. She’s like a computer game and once she gets the ball you ain’t getting it off her.
“Neetz is so quick, she can attack and defend, and I hope she might come back to England to play at some point. I’ve got to put Kelly Smith in there, it would be rude not to!
“There’s also Marianne Pettersen, who was the best I played with at Fulham. If we give the ball to her she’s going to score, even if the rest of the team are having a bad game.”
To catch each of these interviews in future, follow me on Twitter: @chris_brookes
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